Voices are clamouring for the amount of plastic used in new planting to be reduced. But are biodegradable shelters a viable option? Can we do without shelters altogether? Or could a more practical and affordable method exist for reusing them? Jack Haugh reports.

WHEN the Woodland Trust pledged last year to put a stop to nearly half a century of common practice and end the use of plastic shelters across its 24,700 hectares, it got people talking. 

Since the 1970s, translucent tubes, used to protect saplings from being eaten by animals, have been as synonymous with the nation’s forests as fir, spruce, and picnic benches, and are today deployed with around 10–20 per cent of new plantings in the UK.

Where they are used, trees have been shown to have an increased survival rate of approximately 25 per cent and around four times improved growth, compared to saplings planted without a shelter. 

READ MORE: Sustainability: Woodland Trust pledges to end use of plastic tree guards

However, the use of plastic has long been a contentious issue, particularly as shelters often go uncollected and end up littering the countryside. The Woodland Trust is among those to have decided enough is enough. 

“Now it’s time to step up innovation on this with our plastic-free pledge,” said the conservation charity’s Ian Stanton in July. “We will go plastic free by the end of the year.” 

Forestry Journal: Woodlands Trust site manager Joe Middleton at Avoncliff, one of the trial areas for plastic-free planting.Woodlands Trust site manager Joe Middleton at Avoncliff, one of the trial areas for plastic-free planting.

Instead of plastic, the charity, which has sites across the UK, announced plans to use cardboard or British wool, but could even ditch tree guards entirely one day, stating just a month later that this should become the new common practice to reduce carbon emissions and clear up the countryside. 

“As one of the nation’s largest tree planters, by committing to go plastic free in terms of the use of tree shelters we are set to be the trailblazers in this field and catalysing a permanent change to the tree–planting world,” added Darren Moorcroft, chief executive of the Woodland Trust. “We know the importance of planting trees.”

It was a move that made waves and drew plaudits in the months leading up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow. But there are plenty in the industry who question the viability of cardboard, wool and other ‘biodegradable’ materials. You don’t need to search long to find anecdotal evidence from a forester who has tried an alternative to plastic and will freely state that, when it comes to protecting trees from deer and other pests, they simply don’t work. But if we are to continue to use plastic, could and should we be doing more to reduce their environmental impact?

Inventor Andrew Gray believes there is a simple solution to clearing up Britain’s woodlands and reducing its carbon emissions: find a better, more sustainable way to reuse old tree tubes. And he thinks he’s come up with just the thing. 

Forestry Journal: As long as plastic shelters are favoured by foresters, there remains a chance they will end up littering the countryside – unless they can be reused.As long as plastic shelters are favoured by foresters, there remains a chance they will end up littering the countryside – unless they can be reused.

“The ubiquitous tree tubes placed around saplings in tree–planting schemes have been the principal form of protection (against deer and rabbits) since they were created,” he said. “They are, of course, made from plastic (polypropylene) and have been considered single use until now.

“Every environmentalist knows that it takes a generation (40 years or more) for plastics to break down and, even then, the result is still environmentally damaging. With an annual distribution of around 13 million a year, the national stock of used tubes just keeps on growing and everyone agrees this is not good thing. 

“There are schemes to collect, ship to recycling centres, clean, melt down and remake – but this has a one per cent take up as few people believe it’s really worth the effort or cost. The industry would really like a biodegradable fit–and–forget solution – many have tried and continue in this quest.”

It was the Woodland Trust’s announcement – which came following a successful trial at its Avoncliff site in Wiltshire – that got Andrew thinking. As Darren Moorcroft went on to say, “the stark reality is without tree protection, young trees don’t stand much chance” – so, Andrew asked, just how could the charity square that circle with its plans to get rid of the shelters altogether? 

“Change needs leadership and the strong statements by the Woodland Trust, National Trust and others woke the curious me, having long been annoyed by abandoned shelters. 

“I considered the obvious – regardless of future solutions we need a good reason to clean up the past – therefore we need to reuse the old ones.” 

Armed with his Stanley knife, Andrew took to the forests of Sutton Bank, in North Yorkshire, and broadcast the method behind his idea on his YouTube channel. The process, he explained, is simple: go out into the woods and find some old protectors, take them off or lift them up, cut some slits into it to create a tab, and hold it all together with a silicon band. 

In time, Andrew believes, forests could be full of groups going through this and making the most of the old tubes. And given, on average, 85 per cent of trees with shelters survive, while just 50 per cent live if no shelter is used, he still maintains this is the best approach, especially as the UK ramps up its efforts to plant more and more trees. 

“Wherever you go, there are always tubes because the trees have failed or they have done their job but it is time and they don’t need to be there,” he said. “They could be taken off. As we know, many people want to recycle them. 

“There are issues with recycling. There’s a lot of transport, manufacturing costs, or even cleaning the tubes before they can be reused. My argument is that we can reuse them.

“Whereas the growing season is in winter when the tree is asleep, tube removal can happen any time of year. And hopefully there will be enough volunteers or people who are interested in the environment to come out and help do that.

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“For people who like simple ideas, this certainly is one.” 

It seems the National Trust is among those who like the idea of a simple solution.

According to Andrew, they recently bought 1,000 of his reusable shelters and he’s since had talks with the Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust about his vision. 

“These tubes have become popular because they are very good at what they do – massively increase the survival rates of young trees,” he added. “There are probably 85 million of them out there and we need to reuse as many as possible. 

“Trees need planting all the time, and very often this is adjacent to other projects so there is no need to ship far. Together we need to create an exchange platform and start making good with what we already have.

“I was hugely encouraged by the input of the big organisations and within a couple of weeks had sold 1,000 to Stephen Smith of the National Trust. Stephen had been brilliant at explaining why previous ideas were not very good in 2018 when we first met. 

“This time the method of reuse was so compelling the National Trust was happy to buy enough for some testing of its own. It can easily cost 30 p to responsibly dispose of an old tube and the special silicon bands which I make are 12 p each.”

It’s a simple enough process, and he’s already patented the design, but could it work in the real world? And even if enough people could be found to clear up, repair, and reuse the tubes, would reusing plastic really be the best and most eco-friendly way to protect the UK’s trees?

Forestry Journal: Where deployed, tree shelters protect millions of trees across the UK and improve growth rates, yet groups such as the Woodland Trust hope to see their use brought to an end.Where deployed, tree shelters protect millions of trees across the UK and improve growth rates, yet groups such as the Woodland Trust hope to see their use brought to an end.

It all remains up for debate. But a 2019 discussion by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust – ‘Plastic Tree Tubes: Who needs them?’ – looked at the pros and cons of a variety of approaches and concluded on reuse: “Costs are extortionate to remove tubes”; “We need to work together to recover and collect tree guards at multiple sites”; “Recovery is a short-term solution. Longer term we need a better product”.

Instead, the report found, biodegradable shelters, such as the ones being developed by Tubex and Ezeetree, were potentially the way to go, but they aren’t without their problems. 

READ MORE: Tree-planting strategies: a pathway to diversity - Keith Sacre

“I don’t see a perfectly suitable alternative on the market yet,” concluded Alex MacKinnon, who led a Tilhill trial of several alternative products. “But these are very early days and I do think with a little pressure and funding we will find a much better alternative.”

To find out more about Andrew’s invention, search for the video ‘Reuse tubes’ by Andrew Gray on YouTube.